Celtic Knot Knitting: Fiona Ellis Reveals the Mystery Behind the Celtic Cable!

With their winding twists and turns, there seems to be a world of mystery behind knitting Celtic knot cables. But, what if they had a dirty little secret? Maybe there are only a few techniques to learn and rules to follow to knit these intricate patterns. Follow along with knitwear designer and Bluprint instructor Fiona Ellis as she reveals to you the truth behind Celtic knots, using knitting techniques you probably already know!

Be prepared to be amazed as guest writer and Bluprint instructor Fiona reveals the mystery behind Celtic knot knitting!

Cramond fingerless mittens (1)

Cramond fingerless mittens via my new Bluprint class, New Twists in Cables: Fingerless Mittens.

What is a Celtic knot exactly?

First, let me describe what makes a cable pattern a Celtic knot cable. The patterns are based on very old Celtic artwork and were used to ornament all manner of items. They typically include closed loops — the aspect that makes it look like you are weaving some kind of magic — alongside more traditional looking cable crosses.

They also have an intricate “woven” appearance. So later in this post I’ll give you some pointers and a checklist of what to look for while you work the cable crosses.

Creating closed loops

Sparrow Lake Mittens (2)

Sparrow Lake Mittens via Fiona Ellis

An increase in stitch count is worked at the lower part of the loop and a matching decrease worked at the top of the loop. You are literally creating stitches out of thin air, well out of Reverse Stockinette to be precise.

How to work the increase

At the bottom of the closed loop the stitch count needs to be increased from 1 stitch to 5 – an increase of four stitches. Working 5 times in just one stitch will cause a lot of distortion and create a hole, so the method that I use spreads the load a little and helps to combat that.
The next stitch sitting on the left needle is the middle stitch at the bottom of the loop.

1) Make 1 stitch by picking up the strand lying between the last stitch worked (on right needle) and the middle stitch (on left needle). This gives 1 stitch increased.

2) Then work three times into the next stitch on the left needle by knitting into it, moving the yarn into position to purl, purling into the stitch, then move the yarn back into position to knit and knitting into once more. This gives a further 2 stitches increased.

3) Phew after all that’s over you still need to make another stitch by picking up the strand between that last stitch and the next one on the left needle (as before). 1 more stitch increased.

Note: If you are really particular you can work the make ones as a make 1 right and a make 1 left. But really you can just work whichever one you find easiest. Because if somebody is close enough to your knitting to tell they must be a very good friend indeed.

Decrease and increase cable knit

Photo via Fiona Ellis

How to work the decrease

The decrease at the top of the loop is fun to work.
This is the point where you will be decreasing from 5 stitches back down to the original single stitch that you had at the bottom of the loop. I don’t remember where I learned this but I love working it. It sounds like a long-winded explanation, but in a nutshell you are binding off 4 stitches over the center stitch one at a time and from opposite directions. Imagine the next 5 stitches on your left needle are labeled 1, 2, 3 (stitch 3 is the middle stitch), 4 & 5 and here we go:

1) Slip 3 stitches from the left needle to the right needle. Stitches 1, 2 & 3 (in that order).
2) Pass stitch 2 over stitch 3 as though you were simply binding off.
3) Slip stitch 3 back onto the left needle, then pass stitch 4 over stitch 3.
4) Slip stitch 3 back onto the right needle, then pass stitch 1 over stitch 3.
5) Slip stitch 3 back onto the left needle, then pass stitch 5 st over it.
6) Wait, wait you aren’t quite finished, now don’t forget to purl stitch 3.

By the way I use the very same technique when decreasing at the top of a bobble – it looks so neat and tidy.
The coolest thing about the closed loop technique is how flat the piece lies.

When we work a cable cross it causes the fabric to compress widthwise. This means that to produce a piece that is the same width we need more stitches over cable fabric than we will need over Stockinette. The increase at the bottom of the loop takes place just as you will begin to add more cable crosses. So the increase balances out the compression that will be created in the section above. And of course the opposite is true at the top of the loop, a decrease in stitch count at the point when fewer cable crosses will be worked. Brilliant…simply brilliant!

Charting the course

Charting the course

Chart showing “no stitch” above and below closed loops increases and decreases

One of the things that I find confuses many knitters is how these loops are shown on a chart. As we need to have enough squares across the chart to include the largest stitch count, charts are presented with blacked out squared that are labeled “no stitch”. Try to imagine these blacked out squares as voids. There is nothing there until you make the stitches by increasing at the bottom of the closed loop. Don’t include them in your stitch count. Just pretend they aren’t there because really they aren’t stitches at all.

Cable crosses with a center purl stitch

Because of the single stitch that forms the pivot at the bottom and top of the loops it means that when the cords of the cables come to intersect there will be one purl stitch between them. In order to work a really finessed cable cross I like to keep the actual purl stitch in the center above and below the cable cross. To do this there is a little bit of fancy footwork that needs to be done.

The next 5 stitches on the left needle will be 2 knits, 1 purl and 2 knits.

Cross back — with purl in center

CROSS BACK with purl in center

Slide next 3 stitches (2 knits & the purl) onto the cable needle, and hold cable needle at the back. Knit the next 2 stitches from the left needle. To keep the purl st in the center it will need to be worked next but it’s on the wrong end of the cable needle. So simply place it back on the left needle and then you will be able to work it. After that knit the remaining two knit stitches from the cable needle.

Cross front — with purl in center

CROSS FRONT with purl in center

Work as for the back cross but hold the cable needle in front.

Troubleshooting cable crosses

Heart on your sleeve sweater

Heart on Your Sleeve sweater via Fiona Ellis

Now for my top tip on working Celtic Knot patterns!

To give the distinctive woven appearance that makes these patterns look so intricate there is a simple rule to follow. As you trace the path of the a cord through the pattern at each intersection it needs to travel over, under, over, under and so on. This needs to continue in this way throughout the whole piece, including the transition from one pattern repeat to the next. And each cord needs to follow this rule.

Bonnie Sweater Pattern

Bonnie sweater via Fiona Ellis

Here is how you know which cable cross you should be working.

When working a back cross, or one that leans to the right (I’ll be right back), the first cord will be under (I’ll be right behind). A front cross, or left leaning cross, the first cord with be on top, or over.
Pay attention as you work and you will soon get the hang of it, eventually you will learn to read your knitting and have to refer less to the chart or instructions.

I hope these tips will help you to avoid tying yourself in knots! What kind of projects do you like to work Celtic Knot patterns on?

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Fiona Ellis blog image

Fiona has been called the Queen of the Modern Cable and she shares many insights into cable knitting in her Bluprint classes: Mastering Cable Designs, New Twists in Cables: Fingerless Mittens and (the FREE mini-class) Creative Cable Necklines. For more, check out her website or see her many cable designs on Ravelry.


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